Lionsgate // 2013 // 86 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 23rd, 2013
They had their turn...now it's his.
Hit men have long been fascinating figures in pop culture. For some reason, we're obsessed with people who have an apparent license to kill. Lately, it also seems that we're obsessed with drivers -- from The Transporter to Drive -- as well. The Liability combines these loves, throwing a hit man and a driver together for a wild ride through twenty-four hours of crime craziness. Though it has some problems with tone, The Liability is a decent thriller.
Adam (Jack O'Connell, Skins) takes his mother's boyfriend's car for a spin and crashes it. The boyfriend (Peter Mullan, Session 9) -- who appears to be some kind of minor gangster -- is none too happy about it and tells Adam he'll be paying off the car for the next four years. However, Adam sees something on his computer that the boyfriend would rather keep secret. Suddenly the gangster is all friendly, giving Adam the task of driving Roy (Tim Roth, Lie to Me), a hit man, around for the day. This does not end well for anyone.
The Liability suffers from a singular problem, one that stops it from being a first-rate British crime drama and instead leaves it a so-so criminal outing. That problem is tone. There are two poles to British crime drama. One is represented by the hyperkinetic anarchy of Guy Ritchie films: they're violent, funny, and most of all fast. The other side includes more broody, contemplative exercises in existential angst. Though he's Irish, Martin McDonagh's In Bruges is a pretty good example of the latter kind of flick. The Liability can't decide which of these kinds of film to emulate.
There are flashes of The Liability that recall Guy Ritchie's fast editing and absurdist streak, including some wonderful cutaways to Adam's mental POV. There are also several extended sequences of near-silent contemplation by the characters, and given the plot threads of violence and sex trafficking, their thoughts are likely not sunny. The problem is that these two tones never mesh to create a unified film. The moments of jarring editing are exciting and funny, but the switch back to the slower pace of the rest of the film dashes expectations of a Ritchie-style fast-paced action film (a feeling that is in no way helped by the action film cover art). On the flip side, if you're digging the dark, slow-burn style of the narrative, those moments of quick cutting break the tension generated by the more quiet moments. This contrast keeps The Liability from generating any real traction.
It's not all bad, though. The Liability skates by on a decent screenplay and fine performances. The setup for The Liability feels like something we've seen before -- young kid plus older professional in the hit man game -- but the sound construction of the screenplay keeps it feeling "classical" instead of just another cliché. Though I won't claim there are a lot of surprises in store for movie fans, the narrative twists and turns are handled pretty well.
The cast, though, is where this film comes alive. Tim Roth goes for a much more subdued take on his usual gruff persona. He's intimidating and professional, with little of the wild-man histrionics he's often known for. Jack O'Connell does an excellent job as Adam. He has to figure out how to be a bit of a screw-up (which is what kicks off the narrative), but he also has to be sympathetic and grow believably thanks to the ordeal he experiences throughout the story. The film really only becomes electric, though, at the beginning and end, when Peter Mullan is on screen. He's been scary before (see his role as a Deatheater), but he's the perfect gangster-businessman here. I kind of wanted to see a whole movie about his character.
This DVD is also pretty solid. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer does a fine job with the video presentation. The film has a slightly desaturated, "gritty" look to it that is well supported here. Detail is pretty strong throughout, and the crucial black levels are deep and consistent. Though colors are generally muted, flesh tones are pretty accurate. The 5.1 audio track is similar good. Dialogue is clean and clear from the center, even taking accents into account. The surrounds get a bit of use during some of the more tense sequences, with good directionality. Subtitles are included for those who have trouble with British accents.
The set's lone extra is a 30-minute making-of that mixes production footage with cast and crew interviews. It's a bit fluffy, but many of the participants have fun stories to share of the production.
The Liability is a decent little crime thriller. Though it can't quite decide if it wants to be a moody or frenetic one, the well-constructed script and fine performances keep it from sinking under its own weight. Fans of British crime flicks and the actors would do well to rent this disc.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated R